A powerful image of America’s first President rendered during his lifetime, this portrait is the work of Charles Peale Polk (1767-1822), probably under the guidance of his uncle and teacher, Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827). The portrait is a close copy of Peale’s 1787 “Convention” portrait, so-called as Washington sat for Peale in July 1787 when he was presiding as president of the Constitutional Convention (now in the collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, acc. no. 1912.14.3). In the portrait offered here, Polk faithfully replicates many of the details of this original, such as the exact folds of the shirt ruffle and the amount of collar visible on the sitter’s left side. It also shows Polk’s working style early in his career when he was more heavily influenced by his uncle. As discussed by Carol Eaton Soltis, Peale was more academic and made extensive use of modelling to create a realistic sense of depth. Polk’s later works show “the traditions and sensibilities of naïve painting” with the application of broad swaths of color and a reliance on line to effect form. Here, however, the student has come close to re-creating the subtle variations in flesh tones seen in Peale’s original work (Carol Eaton Soltis, The Art of the Peales: Adaptations and Innovations (Philadelphia, 2017), pp. 137-139).
If not Polk’s first copy, this portrait is an early replica. It is apparently signed and dated by Polk under the current re-lining. Photographs taken of the reverse before restoration show that it bears a partially obscured lettering, C. P…k and 1788 (fig. 1). Additional photographs of a label on the back of what appear to be the original stretchers (now lost) reads General Washington/ C W Peale pinxit/ 1788 (fig. 2). The handwriting is not in Peale’s hand but closely resembles that of Polk and the student may have been recording the originator of the image rather than the painter of the work. It is also possible that Peale contributed to the portrait in his instruction of Polk and his diary records his working on two portraits of Washington on December 5, 7, and 8, 1788, the year painted on the portrait’s reverse. Peale may have provided an initial sketch or reworked a likeness begun by Polk. Based on photographs, Peale scholar Charles Coleman Sellers believed this portrait to be primarily the work of Peale. Coleman noted that Peale’s diary also contains a 1791 reference to the older artist altering, at Polk’s request, a portrait by Polk of his wife (Letter, Charles Coleman Sellers to Robert C. Graham, April 14, 1965).
This portrait may have been retained by the artist as the basis for his replicas. Two other examples by Polk in this format are known, each showing a greater degree of departure from Peale’s original. The first, at the Art Museum, Princeton University, is virtually identical to that offered here but depicts more of the sitter’s left collar than Peale’s original and the portrait in this lot. The second, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, differs considerably with an elongated head and shirt ruffle of variant design. Polk also used the “Convention” image for his larger ¾ length portraits showing Washington after the Battle of Princeton (Linda Crocker Simmons, Charles Peale Polk 1776-1822: A Limner and His Likenesses (Washington D.C., 1981), p. 26, 28-37, nos. 11, 12, 16-43).
According to bills of sale for the portrait in 1965 and the records of the Frick Art Reference Library, the portrait first appeared on the marketplace when it was sold by the New York firm of Scott & Fowles in 1931 to John McEntee Bowman (1875-1931). A Canadian émigré who worked his way up in the hotel industry, Bowman was the proprietor of the Hotel Biltmore and this portrait supposedly hung in the Bowman Room. In December 1955, at a sale of furnishings from the hotel, a local fireman, Michael Donohue, purchased the portrait for $38 (Arthur North, “$38 G.W. Picture May Bring 20G,” New York Daily News, February 22, 1956, pp. 4, 28, copy in files of Frick Art Reference Library, ref. 121-20-a2). From thence, it passed through dealers, Graham Galleries and Elinor Gordon, who in 1965 sold it to H. Richard Dietrich, Jr.